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This is a story about transphobia, fake news and a credulous media that latched onto a viral TikTok and took it at face value.
It starts last Friday, 16 June, when pupils at a school in Rye, East Sussex made a recording which, it was claimed, had two students standing up to a teacher over a fellow pupil who ‘identified as a cat’.
In the three-and-a-half-minute recording one of the children can be heard saying: “If they (another student) want to identify as a cow (may be ‘cat’) or something then they are genuinely unwell – crazy.” And later – as the increasingly riled teacher takes issue with their views the same student asks: “I said ‘how can you identify as a cat when you are a girl.’”
It is a brief, ill-tempered discussion and at some point, the teacher tells the students that if they don’t like Rye College’s inclusive policies they should ‘go to another school’.
The TikTok was swiftly picked up by the fringe elements of the right-wing and conservative media on both sides of the Atlantic and was spread by a Twitter account claiming to be run by the mother of one of the students. Tucker Carlson, late of Fox News, put it up on his youtube channel and soon it had been leapt on by the UK wing of the ‘Turning Point’ movement that has a recent history of demonstrating against ‘drag’ events in London pubs. From there it quickly bled into the mainstream and by Sunday the story was featuring prominently on the Telegraph website among others.
“Pupil who questioned classmate ‘identifying as a cat’ called ‘despicable’ by teacher.”
By Monday the story had gone viral and the collective forces of outrage across all sectors of the media were giving pretty much the same take of the angry teacher, who called a pupil ‘despicable’ for daring to question a child who ‘identified as a cat.’
On Monday evening, former Apprentice contestant, Michelle Dewbury popped up on GB News, dressed as a cat, mocking the Year 8 pupil and insisting she be called ‘Meowchelle’. Later, following slight pushback, the reliably touchy Dewbury took to Twitter and wrote:
“I’ve had people messaging me saying I’m cruel and/or bullying to mock this child. No. Cruelness is indulging this ridiculousness and prioritising feelings/fiction over actual reality. The more people who stand up to nonsense, the better.”
The steam was up and the righteous mob went to work. Thousands of Twitter accounts piled in on the story and media and public figures including Piers Morgan, Nick Ferrari and even Britain’s ‘strictest head teacher’ Katharine Birbalsingh leapt on it.
The story had such momentum that even the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, got in on the act. By Wednesday, the Daily Mail was reporting that Keegan had ordered an investigation into the school, and soon even Rishi Sunak was wading in, via his Number 10 spokesperson condemning (in the words of the Mail) “schools (that) are allowing children to identify as cats, horses and dinosaurs.”
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The Dead Cat Bounce
There was just one problem – and one which swiftly became apparent to anyone who took a brief moment to listen to the audio. At no point did the teacher refer to any child identifying as a cat. Yes, there was a very heated debate about gender identity – but the only people to mention cats (and possibly a cow) were the girls who had made the illicit recording.
There was something else that appeared ‘off’. As I was later to point out in a piece for Byline Times – the debate was quite clearly advanced when the recording started and there was not enough clarity, context and information in it to work out exactly what was going on.
The one thing that was very clear to me was that the entire story was predicated, purely on the evidence of three and a half minutes of tape and the testimony of someone claiming to be one of the TikTok maker’s (very proud) mother.
I listened to the audio multiple times. I should add that I have had experience in the classroom and this felt instinctively like ‘one of those moments’ that all teachers have at some point in their careers. A heated debate, a class of personalities, some difficult, perhaps deliberately trouble-making charges and a situation that had got out of hand. Crucially there was absolutely no evidence at all to back up the ‘girl who identifies as a cat’ claim so I took to Twitter and started questioning it. On Tuesday morning I dubbed the Telegraph story ‘fake news’ and waited for the trolls to come. And come they did.
Soon, GB News host and ‘comedian’ Josh Howie was on my case with a screen grab of an account by an anonymous woman, given to LBC, doubling down on the cat story. Howie mocked my (wholly undeserved) reputation as a ‘purveyor of truth and scourge of fake news’ and demanded that I delete my ‘false and fake news tweet.’
Soon Lady (Claire) Fox, former Revolutionary Communist and Brexit Party MEP had got wind of it too and was tweeting in my direction: “I look forward to a fulsome apology (from me) for tweeting misinformation…” adding “children require clarity and firmness from adults insisting on reality.”
Now a tweet is just a tweet and I had better things to do than spend my week getting trolled by anti-cancel culture figures and GB News hosts demanding, unironically, that I delete my tweet and apologise for spreading ‘fake news’. But the more I listened to the tape, the more I dug into the thin gruel of this story, the more I took note of the ‘usual suspects’ taking issue with me, the more I saw transphobic accounts leap on it – the more I realised that it had nothing to do with a cat or a child identifying as one and much more to do with the weight of the right-wing media and grown-up politicians, piling in on an unheard, unseen Year 8 pupil who did not fit their notion of ‘normal’.
So, I didn’t delete the tweet and wrote a piece for Byline Times instead.
The tale of a schoolgirl identifying as a cat has become catnip to the anti-trans media machine, including the BBC and ITV. But the real story is of weaponised bigotry
That article, it seems, made its digital way to Rye where it was read by people present in the classroom on the day. One of those witnesses – contacted us.
We have taken the time both to establish this individual’s credibility and to safeguard their identity and as such the individual is anonymous and some critical details given to us have been deliberately omitted. I am very aware that the two children who made the recording are also just that – children – and so have taken care to omit details about them and some of the things they are alleged to have said on the day.
I shall refer to the ‘cat’ pupil as ‘Student A’ and the two individuals who made the tape as “B” and “C”.
Our correspondent – present in the room – tells us: I want to make (it) clear that ‘A’ does not identify as a cat.
What, by our source’s account, happened is that there was an ongoing conversation happening between several pupils about identity before B and C engaged with them and – according to our source – as the discussion became increasingly personal and ill-tempered, either B or C then said, apropos of gender: ‘if you identify as a cat or a carrot you are insane’.
In other words, nobody was talking about ‘cats’ until the subject of them was introduced into the conversation by one of the two pupils who later made the recording. This was a broad-ranging conversation about gender and identity between a group of kids in Year 8 which seems to have turned nasty before the teacher intervened.
Our source defends the teacher and says that having started out ‘extremely calm’ she only became ‘irritable’ when the two students became increasingly ‘disrespectful’.
I am not going to make the mistake here that our Education Secretary, or my colleagues in the mainstream media have made. I am not about to bully two Year 8 children or whip up a pile on against them. These are young people after all. Yes, they made the TikTok, and yes, they put it out there – but they are children.
What I am here to do is to question the individuals — some of them in positions of great power and influence — who have jumped on this brief audio and taken it at face value in order to whip up a small but very vocal mob. Journalists who have not bothered to do some basic digging, ask basic questions or check sources before running the story. GB News presenters – grown adults – who have believed it and thought it appropriate to sneer and mock. Members of the House of Lords and high-profile teachers with CBEs who have sided with two kids on a TikTok against their teacher – and in the process added to the tonnage of hate that is already being aimed at the transgender community and a young child, in Year 8, exploring their identity.
To these people, I say this. Perhaps rather than pointing and sneering at other people or children finding their way through life – take a good long look at yourselves instead.